Rockall is a small uninhabitable rock located approximately 160 nautical miles west of the Scottish islands of St. Kilda and 230 nautical miles to the north-west of Donegal. It marks a point at which the Rockall Bank, part of the very large Hatton-Rockall area of continental shelf extending under the north-east Atlantic Ocean, protrudes 21 metres above sea level. During the 1960s and 1970s the issue of Rockall was a source of legal and political controversy in both Ireland and the United Kingdom. The UK claimed sovereignty over Rockall in 1955 and sought to formally annex it under its 1972 Island of Rockall Act.
While Ireland has not recognised British sovereignty over Rockall, we have never sought to claim sovereignty ourselves. The consistent position of successive Irish Governments has been that Rockall and similar rocks and skerries should have no significance for establishing legal claims to continental shelf. This position is now reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which provides at Article 121, paragraph 3 that: ‘Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.’ Accordingly, sovereignty over Rockall and rights to the Hatton-Rockall area of continental shelf on which Rockall sits are two separate issues.
Under the UN Convention all coastal states are entitled to a continental shelf that extends to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles if the geological continental margin does not actually extend that far. Where a State claims a continental shelf that extends beyond 200 miles it must demonstrate to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that geologically the margin extends beyond that distance and must provide data to support its case.
In 1988, Ireland and the UK reached agreement on the delimitation of areas of the continental shelf between the two countries in both the Hatton Rockall area of the North East Atlantic and in the Celtic Sea to the south, stretching out up 500 nautical miles from their respective coastlines. Under the UN Convention the location of Rockall was irrelevant to the determination of the boundary in the Hatton-Rockall area.
Notwithstanding the 1988 agreement between Ireland and the UK, the claims by both countries to the Hatton-Rockall shelf beyond 200 miles are not accepted by Iceland or Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands), which make their own claims. The four countries began to meet regularly from 2001 in an effort to resolve the overlapping claims issue, but to date have been unable to reach agreement.
The UN Convention imposes a ten-year deadline for the making of continental shelf submissions to the UN Commission and the deadline expired for Ireland in May 2009. The Government therefore arranged to make the submission in March of that year, as did the British Government in respect of the UK’s claim. Denmark submitted its claim on behalf of the Faroe Islands in 2010. Iceland has not made a submission to date.
The UN Commission’s rules of procedure prevent its consideration of a submission relating to a disputed area without the consent of all the States concerned and Iceland does not currently consent to the consideration of these submissions. However, Ireland’s submission within the deadline preserved the State’s legal position and since then the Government has continued to work for the creation of conditions that will permit its consideration by the UN Commission as soon as possible.
The exclusive economic zone (or EEZ) is the body of water beyond the territorial sea that lies above the continental shelf between 12 and 200 nautical miles from shore. In 2013 Ireland and the UK reached agreement on boundaries between the two countries’ EEZs. The 2013 agreement built on the 1988 Agreement that established continental shelf boundaries and it provides that those boundaries, slightly adjusted to ensure that no waters were lost to the high seas, shall also be the EEZ boundaries. This created a single maritime boundary between 12 and 200 miles in the water and on the seabed beneath.
Nothing in either agreement altered Ireland’s longstanding position on Rockall, nor does either agreement have any implications for the present difficulties between Ireland and Scotland over fishing within 12 miles of Rockall.